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richard stevenson
miles in uniform

One time Miles' band
is playin' Birdland
and the manager requests
they all turn up in uniforms.

All the cats did in those days,
but not Miles' band, man.
The next night he makes 'em
all stay in their dressing rooms
til it's time to take the stage.

He rolls a rack of clean threads
he got from a nearby men's wear
out on the stage and waits
til he has everyone's attention, eh.

"Oscar Goodstein wants to see
uniforms on stage," he says,
"so here they are. If you came
to gawk at uniforms and not
to hear the music, gawk away."

Then he leaves, cool as he arrived.
Everyone laughs for a while
like Miles is up to some John Cage
trick or other, makin' better use
of silence than he usually does -

only the note turns sour,
hangs in the air like a bad fart -
not funky at all. And Oscar
he's lookin' at his watch,
sweatin' like ol' Satchmo'.

He's got no hanky , see.
The hubbub is startin' to look mean.
Goodstein backs down on his demand
and Miles takes the stand
to grand applause. Gives Oscar a wink.

It weren't no big thing, and Oscar he
doesn't say a word, just nods.
Miles blows a long, lean note
and leans back on his haunches.

that mournful ballad sound

1. " Baby Won't You Please Come Home"

First Victor tickles the trickle
of rain water from the eaves
then comes that mournful
harmon mute and Miles
clean as mist evaporating
from the leaves of grass
before the foot falls anywhere
on this pristine lawn and you
know your baby's gone for good
this time and though that muted
horn sounds like a begging fool
you know the admission of failure
in those notes is just another
cool rebuke and the sadness
is the sadness of the bell of a flower
heavy with its drink and no hurt
can slake the thirst like that
first cool drink of memory.

a bit of larkin

" The fact he can play
eight minutes of 'Autumn Leaves'
without me liking
or recognizing the tune
confirms my view of him
as the master of rebarbative boredom,"
Larkin said, doubtless thinking
he'd nailed some minimalist principle
or other on the head. His words
like his poems crabbed and
scuttling from under the class rock
with their nasty epigrammatic pinchers flailing.
This from the guy who mastered terseness
and understated grumbling
in matter-of-fact observation.
Larkin never on a lark
even with a mug'o'suds and sixpence.
A consummate craftsman himself
and not one to let ecstasy
consume the grey cells in a brush fire.
Funny, when you think of how infrequently
Miles let his own horn go hatless,
so I see the two of them circling each other
like Toms with one eye apiece missing,
hissing while Max Roach hits the
garbage can lids.
All the other cats go chasin' their tails
or maybe lookin' for a little.
But why the insistence on the theme
when each note is arching its back
in question marks and Max
can hi-hat it through any alley scrap?
This Scrapple for the Apple of anyone's eye
is but a little piss and vinegar methinks.
Nothing to water down the long drink of Miles' cry.
So here's mud in your other eye, Phil me lad,
and let's pitter patter with brushes
round the whole alley kit
cos a lid's off somewhere
and I smell a fish.

1954, baker's keyboard lounge

For five years you've prowled the streets
like Rilke's panther behind bars of rain,
taken Bob Weinstock's shitty pay to cop,
record lacklustre tunes in a desultory mood.

You've fluffed solos, lost your pride
and embouchure, slid with the grains
of sand in your hourglass veins,
convinced you were living on borrowed time.

Fat Girl's dead; Bird's flame gutters
on fifty-second street; the wax flesh
of zombie boppers everywhere melting,
unable to resolve itself into a dew.

The brownstones are covered in a soot
from Europe's chimneys. The homeboys
all want stand-up and burlesque,
the music is now a watered drink.

So you slink along the streets of Detroit
from your low-paying gig at the Bluebird
to Baker's, try to insinuate your self
between the heavy drops of rain and sweat.

Rain on your face and in your hair,
your clothing and demeanor soaked,
the driest thing about you your trumpet
cradled like a baby under your coat,

you weave your way through the crowd,
up to the bandstand when Clifford blows
"Sweet Georgia Brown" and Max Roach
and Ritchie, Bud Powell's little brother, keep time.

Oblivious to the group, the people, the place,
parked in the big bend of the baby grand,
you put your trumpet to your lips,
launch into "My Funny Valentine."

Brownie stops blowing, cues the boys
to prop you up, while the audience
gathers like iron filings from
off the corner, around the block.

And the water courses down your cheeks
as, in the midst of your defeat, you
wail to the elements: Love me, love me
just a little, let the rain wash me clean.

It's a sad performance; you're bad.
Every time you push a valve
is like spiking a needle in your arm
and pushing the plunger home.

The last note haunts you, follows you,
a black sedan you hadn't noticed before.
Soon the driver will pull over to the curb
and tell you to get in.

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